Ministry of foreign assassinations: Killings, disappearances, and the challenge to the liberal order

If Europe refrains from punishing state-sponsored assassinations and disappearances, not only will authoritarian regimes continue their repressive tactics, but the EU will lose its ability to defend its common area of freedom, security, and justice 

The European Union is an increasingly dangerous place for journalists. The frequency with which they have been murdered or have disappeared in recent years has caught the headlines, justifying a debate as to what extent state-building processes meant to precede EU accession remain a work in progress after countries join the bloc. Disturbingly, the trend appears to form part of a broader pattern in international relations: assassinations of government critics and members of the opposition are becoming ever more common.

Before the alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the most high-profile case of this kind was the attempted assassination of Russian defector Sergei Skripal – for which his former employer, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), deployed a military-grade nerve agent in Salisbury. The sloppiness of the GRU’s actions and the obvious lies the Kremlin used in its cover story are flabbergasting – but they may serve a purpose. Both hitmen the British authorities identified are veteran GRU officers who were involved in the extraction of former president Viktor Yanukovich from Ukraine, as well as Russian meddling in the country during the 2013 Maidan revolution. The Kremlin may have intended the Skripal mission to be their last one before they became public officials or nationalist celebrities.

The semi-transparent nature of the operation could have been a signal in itself: wherever enemies may hide, the Russian regime will find them. Unsurprisingly, many of the CIA’s Russian sources fell quiet in the aftermath of the mission.

But the intimidation goes beyond spycraft. For the Kremlin, all civil society actors, journalists, and intellectuals who speak against the regime are part of a Western plot to destabilise Russia. In practice, they are at risk of becoming a target.

The Skripal operation should also enforce discipline within the ranks of the Russian elite. As the glory of annexing Crimea fades, the weaknesses of President Vladimir Putin’s system – seen in Russia’s economic and intellectual malaise – become obvious again. As the regime’s ability to please the urban, educated middle class declines, state repression increases. Appropriately, Skripal’s would-be assassins come from remote areas of Siberia, and owe their careers and access to material comfort exclusively to the regime.

As the case of Khashoggi apparently murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – makes clear, Russia is not the only authoritarian regime hunting dissidents. People do not suffer fatal accidents or engage in lethal fistfights in diplomatic buildings. And Turkey’s apparent conclusions, which name his alleged assassins and the operation’s chain of command, are far more persuasive than any Saudi excuse.

For the Kremlin, all civil society actors, journalists, and intellectuals who speak against the regime are part of a Western plot to destabilise Russia

Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran, is equally busy in this field. In July, Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat accredited in Vienna was arrested in Germany on a European arrest warrant. He is accused of planning an attack on a gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran in Paris in June. Belgian and French police foiled the plot, confiscating the bomb and detaining the perpetrators. Iran’s intelligence services have long placed foreign-based opponents of the regime under close surveillance, often aggressively gathering information on them. Yet planning a bombing in Paris is a drastic escalation.

In the wake of the cold war, the West thought it could uphold human rights, the rule of law, and democratic freedoms across the world. The subsequent assertiveness of authoritarian systems in China, Russia, the Middle East, and Latin America put the West on the defensive. Now, authoritarian repression has begun to reach into Western societies.

Information technology has partially globalised the media environment, as it has dissent and freedom of speech: the commentary and support of diaspora communities helped facilitate revolts such as the 2011 Arab uprisings and the Maidan revolution. However, authoritarian governments have begun to globalise the repression and terror of the police state. This is not only about murder and attempted murder in itself. When authoritarian leaders contest the right to life of residents and citizens of European states who speak against them, they pose a threat to the foundations of Western liberal society.

If European politicians refrain from punishing this kind of behaviour, authoritarian regimes will increasingly assassinate dissidents abroad and exert other forms of pressure on people they see as dangerous to their rule. Of course, Western democracies can hardly respond in kind, initiating a foreign assassination programme against Russian, Saudi, and Iranian officials. But figures linked with despotic regimes send their children to European schools, hide their wealth in European companies and assets, and buy European passports that can provide them with a safe haven. This needs to change.

Authoritarian regimes’ foreign intelligence agencies will learn from their experiences this year and could return with a vengeance

The Magnitsky Act, introduced in the US in 2012 to target the Russian regime, provides a template for an effective response. Individual EU member states – including the United Kingdom, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia – have introduced similar acts. The European Parliament pushed for an adaption of similar legislation in 2014 – without success. But unless Europeans adopt such measures on an EU level, the patchwork of national sanctions legislation will be easy to circumvent.

Moreover, defending the EU’s common area of freedom, security, and justice requires the adoption of common minimum standards for counterintelligence forces and a dramatic increase in state capacity in this area, particularly in central Europe. Authoritarian regimes’ foreign intelligence agencies will learn from their experiences this year and could return with a vengeance. To prevent this, Europeans need the capability to watch them more closely. Historically, left-wing and liberal parties have been reluctant to increase the competence and portfolios of intelligence services. Yet with the globalisation of authoritarian repression ante portas, they have the most to lose from inaction.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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